States in the US that allow access to medical marijuana have lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses than those where cannabis is still illegal, according to new research looking at the use of the herb for chronic pain. Writing in the JAMA Internal Medicine, Marcus Bachhuber, MD, noted that many people report dissatisfaction with opioids for chronic pain but that medical marijuana is effective at relieving that pain.
Considering the recent research that found wide variation in opioid prescribing across the US, and the research showing that deaths from prescription painkillers are rising in many states, this apparent ability to reduce the risk of mortality with access to medical marijuana seems a promising strategy for healthcare authorities.
Although many are still doubtful as to the health implications of legalising marijuana, the herb does appear to at least reduce accidental opioid overdose-related deaths in those states where it is legal. The researchers looked at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data on opioid deaths in each state between 1999 and 2010 and then assessed any differences between those states that have legalised marijuana and those that haven’t.
Before 1999 three states had legalised medical cannabis: California, Oregon, and Washington. Between 1999 and 2010 ten more states legalised cannabis for medical purposes: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Although deaths from overdoses of opioids still increased dramatically in these states, as in the rest of the US during this period, the mean rate of deaths was 24.8% lower in the states where medical marijuana laws had been introduced than states where cannabis is still illegal.
Fewer Opioid Deaths
The effect of this legalisation appears to have increased over time as well. The mean reduction in deaths was 19.9% in the first year after legalisation and 33.3% by the 6th year. By reducing, presumably, the number of people using opioids for persistent pain such as chronic neck pain, medical marijuana was estimated to be associated with around 1729 fewer deaths in 2010 from painkiller overdoses.
Scientists still do not fully understand the effects of marijuana on health and there are certainly concerns regarding the psychotropic effects of the drug, especially in younger people where use of marijuana has been linked to psychological disturbances including schizophrenia. Using medical marijuana to treat some causes of neck pain, such as fibromyalgia, or even depression may be problematic, which is why it is vital to go through a physician for a prescription and not self-treat.
Medical marijuana is prescribed for a variety of chronic pain conditions however, and may have fewer long-lasting side effects compared to pharmaceuticals, making it an increasingly popular choice for many people having to manage chronic neck pain.